Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Although it doesn't qualify as the high-minded, movie massacre that "Rambo IV" was, writer and director Sylvester Stallone's ballistic, high-octane, adrenalin-laced actioneer “The Expendables” (***1/2 out of ****), about mercenaries with hearts of gold, delivers its thrills and chills like grenades in your face. A gnarly-looking Stallone assembles an ultra-elite group of combat veterans who are experts in the use of firearms, all kinds of exotic cutlery, explosives and their own bodies as deadly weapons of force. This rugged quintet of mercenaries renovates a South American dictator’s palace and wipes out his entire army. This enormously entertaining but thoroughly preposterous tough-guy tale boasts a constellation of legendary B-picture action stars. Clearly, Stallone still wields enough clout in Hollywood to attract Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Dolph Lungren, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture, not to mention Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in cameos, to appear in his movie. Lensed on location in Brazil, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, this brawny but unbelievable, R-rated shoot’em up plays like “The Big Chill” of action movies. Life in "The Expendables" is cheap. Bodies topple like raindrops in a storm of gunfire. Bullets splatter heads and atomize other body parts. This cynical, hard-boiled thriller bristles with larger-than-life firefights, fistfights, and knife fights than what Hollywood usually reserves for action-minded audiences. Predictably, sentimentality ennobles our heroes. They behave like the whore with a heart of gold who gives it up for nothing. Far from being cold, heartless automatons, our bulletproof protagonists win both our sympathy and admiration. They live an unwritten code and banish those who abuse it. Looking as fit as he ever, Stallone sports a Van Dyke and lots of tattoos. Not only does Stallone act as the ringleader for these motley mercenaries, but he also wrote the screenplay as well as orchestrated the action sequences.

“The Expendables” opens at night in the Gulf of Aiden near Somalia as Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone of “Rocky Balboa”) leads his elite team of mercenaries to ransom hostages from a ship hijacked by ruthless pirates. The pirate leader (Amin Joseph of “The Mist”) isn’t satisfied with the $3-million ransom payment that our heroes deposit at his feet. Instead, he complains that the company that employs the hostages has taken far too much time to pay him off. Now, as our eponymous gunmen sight him in with their infrared laser scopes, he demands $5-million. Our heroes quibble about who shoots whom and then the loose cannon of the group, Gunnar (Dolph Lungren of “Rocky 4”), jump-starts the action and obliterates the leader with his grenade launcher. Meanwhile, our heroes wipe out the pirates to the last man without harming the hostages. This in itself should tell you that this is a movie for guys. Afterward, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham of the “Transporter” franchise), Yin Yang (Jet Li of “Unleashed”), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews of “Gamer”), and Toll Road (mixed martial artist Randy Couture of “Redbelt”) watch in horror as Gunnar tries to hang a surviving pirate. Gunnar's argument is that the pirates would have hanged them without a second thought. Yang deploys his steel-tipped boots to distract Gunnar, and Barney plunges his automatic pistol into the nape of Gunnar’s neck. It seems that Gunnar had acquired a meth habit and that puts him at odds with our heroes. Since Gunnar has broken their code, “The Expendables” kick him off the squad. According to Stallone, he wanted to cast Jean-Claude Van Damme in this role, but Van Damme didn't want to be depicted as a loser.

After they get back home, Barney hears about an offer from an anonymous man, Mr. Church (Bruce Willis of “Cop Out”), who wants him with meet him at a church. Barney suspects that the man is a C.I.A. agent. Mr. Church invites one of Barney’s oldest competitors, Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger of “Predator”), to listen to the offer, too. Church wants to topple a ruthless dictator on the South American island of Vilena. Naturally, Vilena is a fictional South American country. Anyway, Church wants the man behind the dictator, James Munroe (Eric Roberts of “The Specialist”), rubbed out with extreme prejudice. Munroe and General Garza (David Zayas of “Bring out the Dead”) have been harvesting illegal narcotics since they overthrew the previous head of state. Ironically, the person who opposes Garza with a passion, Sandra (Hispanic actress Giselle ItiĆ©), is his own daughter. She serves as an escort for Barney and Lee when they arrive to reconnoiter the island. Barney and Lee fly into Vilena in a battered looking amphibious plane. They pose as wildlife experts out to save injured animals, but they aren’t around long before Garza’s soldiers take an interest in Barney’s curiosity. Barney wanted Sandra to get him as close to the presidential palace as she could. Our heroes have to shoot their way off the island. Barney wants Sandra to come with them, but she refuses to leave. The cliffhanger escape is pretty exciting. Lee takes off with Barney scrambling down the dock. Barney barely makes it in time to seize a fingertip hold on the open door of the aircraft. Barney is so perturbed at the soldiers that he takes over flying the plane and Lee slips into the nose section where they have concealed multiple guns. By this time, about 50 troops along with Munroe have assembled on the dock. They tried to shoot down the plane, but predictably were unable to bring it down. Barney circles back around and strafes the dock, killing about 41 soldiers, really aggravating Munroe.

Later, Barney explains to his team that the operation is a C.I.A. set-up that will probably result in their deaths because the agency cannot be trusted to punish its own. Barney recommends that they turn down the offer. Nevertheless, Barney changes his mind after he thinks about Sandra and her decision to remain in the most miserable place in the world. One of Barney’s former mercenary pals, Tool (Mickey Rourke of “Iron Man 2”), reminisces about an episode in Bosnia when he failed to save an innocent woman’s life. Tool believes that if he could have saved her life, he might have saved part of his own soul. Barney is so moved by Tool’s memory as well as the memory of the defiant Sandra that he decides on impulse to go back into an impossible situation and save her. Although Gunnar is no longer with them, the Expendables volunteer to the last man to follow Barney. Instead of doing the impossible for a $5-million pay check, Barney and his men wind up doing it for nothing. Meanwhile, Munroe has Sandra arrested and his chief henchman, Paine (Steve Austin of “The Condemned”) tortures her so that he can learn the identities of the men who flew into Vilena. Our heroes show up again and all hell breaks loose this time, with blood and body parts flying like confetti.

While the violence isn’t as hardcore as “Rambo IV,” “The Expendables” boasts its share of mayhem. Nevertheless, Stallone raises the bar for mercenary movies with his no-nonsense, slam-bang direction. The violence may take you by surprise both with its severity and celerity. Not everybody has their limbs, legs, torsos, and other body parts shredded by gunfire. Some equally hideous deaths are left to your avid imagination. A character must possess some modicum of virtue to survive in this corrosive universe of “The Expendables.” The Statham character literally makes his knives sing and dance for him. The riveting scenes of close-quarters combat tops anything that you’ve seen since “Bourne” franchise. Stallone manages to imbue the action with a ferocity that will make you pay attention to it. Legendary stuntman Terry J. Leonard of “Blue Thunder” and “Cobra” handled the second unit work and the end credits list about 60 stunt people.

Movies like "The Expendables" usually fail because they fail to showcase their massive star power. Happily, Stallone shares the limelight with agile Jason "The Transporter" Statham, martial arts sensation Jet Li of “The Mummy 3,” hard-headed Dolph Lundgren of “Rocky IV”, and shotgun-wielding Terry Crews of “Gamer.” These guys chew the scenery when they aren't obliterating it. Incredibly, despite his shortage of scenes, Lundgren steals the show as a junkie mercenary who abandons his loyalty for his friends for his narcotic cravings. Meanwhile, Stallone hasn't forgotten how to shoot two guns at once, steer a truck like a runaway train in a drive-by, and generally kick butt when his own butt isn't being kicked. Wrestling champ Steve Austin and Julia's brother Eric Roberts deploy themselves as the most despicable dastards you’ll ever encounter. You can hate these desperados without a qualm. They shoot first and neglect to ask questions. No, "The Expendables" isn't cute, clever, or particularly literate. The dialogue shoves the plot forward without sounding like bumper sticker philosophy. The one line that really sticks out is uttered by Stallone’s character when Trench turns down the mission and heads for the front door. “What’s his problem,” Church asks. “He wants to be president,” Barney scoffs. They don’t have the usual planning scenes with maps and miniatures of the location. Nevertheless, this supercharged macho melodrama will rattle your cage like a blast from the past!